Why Young Adult is an overlooked gem

Well received but lacking awards attention, Young Adult be one of the most overlooked films of recent times...

One of the downsides to the awards blitz that lays waste to the winter months is that some great films inevitably fall through the cracks. The smaller gems, the harder to digest movies that don’t play well with others, the kind of film that, without a major theme, real-life story or Weinstein megaphone behind it, can easily be overlooked. If you haven’t got a campaign behind you, you might as well give up.

Likewise, a release during that December-February window can be fatal – and one of 2012’s best films, at least when it comes to UK releases, was scuppered by this calendar quirk. Young Adult, the latest film from director Jason Reitman, came out in mid-December in the States (up against Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows and the third Alvin & The Chipmunks film), and in the first week of February in Britain alongside Carnage and Martha Marcy May Marlene, two other films vying for attention during the month of both the Oscars and the BAFTAs.

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Unfortunately for Young Adult, it had little awards buzz, and the staggered release cooled what momentum could have been gained from a bunch of appearances in American end-of-2011 lists. It’s a shame, because in a year of complex, compelling indie films – from Five Year Engagement to Ruby Sparks, from Take This Waltz to, most recently, Silver Linings PlaybookYoung Adult stood apart. Out of that fresh crop, it was the ugliest, the subtlest and the most scathing. 

True, he may not have the attention-grabbing qualities of his contemporaries – the widescreen canvas of Paul Thomas Anderson, the blockbuster blitzkrieg of Christopher Nolan – but over the last decade, Canadian director Jason Reitman has very quietly been asserting himself as one of Hollywood’s best filmmakers. His work, which exhibits both the gloss of mainstream filmmaking, and the odd outlook that typifies what is now classed as ‘indie’ cinema, has been full of subtle stylistic gambles. Each of the young director’s films can be classed as ‘comedy/drama’, that strange tag that smushes together oft-opposed genres in the hope of making some semblance of sense, but Reitman shoots straight for the gutter between humour and humanist themes.

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Peeking beneath the surface of Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up In The Air reveals an unwillingness to commit to tried-and-tested transformative tropes. Aaron Eckhart’s smooth-talking cigarette lobbyist is as unrepentant in his lifestyle as George Clooney’s career bachelor, while Juno’s exploration of teen pregnancy is just as critical of – and ultimately undecided about – traditional family values as Up In The Air is about middle-aged manhood.

But with Young Adult, Reitman took probably his largest gamble. True, it is another quick and cheap flick, headed by a recognisable star, but where his subversive streak has in the past been hidden behind his tendencies towards tweeness, this is an actively discomfiting film.

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Charlize Theron stars as Mavis, a thirtysomething novelist who pens a successful series of YA fiction. Her days and nights are filled with the booze, emotional immaturity and irresponsible behaviour that one would expect to find in a Judd Apatow-created perma-teen, but Mavis’ freewheeling life is much more reminiscent of an ugly tailspin. So, once an email drops into her inbox, sent from her high-school sweetheart’s now-wife, announcing the arrival of their first child, Mavis becomes fixated. After all, there’s no better way of avoiding deadlines and frantic calls from frustrated editors than chewing over this news. A baby! A family! The gradual slip towards middle-age, boredom, and death! Something, she thinks, must be done about this horrific situation. 

Some would say that Reitman’s main gamble here is collaborating again with Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody – who, since winning the Best Screenplay Oscar in 2007, has suffered something of a catastrophic critical backlash. Neither Jennifer’s Body, her second screenplay, or The United States Of Tara, the TV show she created as well as wrote, reached the zeitgeist-y heights of Juno, and both were criticised for what some saw as Cody reprising the wisecracking dialogue of her debut feature with diminishing returns.

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In Young Adult, Cody steps out of her comfort zone, but both the script and the ensuing film are hard to classify. The set-up sounds like a comedy: Mavis returns to her hometown in upstate Minnesota in order to pursue her ex-boyfriend Buddy, played by Patrick Wilson at his charmingly mundane best. Marriage, children and years apart be damned, as Mavis is stricken with the kind of deluded drive where every complication is seen as a call for redoubled efforts. 

But Cody and Reitman have grander ambitions, as they take their time through the film’s 90 minutes to craft an ultimately quite devastating portrait of Mavis’ psychology. What seems like self-obsession and immaturity at first soon gives way to alcoholism and depression, while her misplaced affections are eventually revealed to stem from deep-rooted traumatic experiences. The result is, seriously, not the laugh-riot that the film’s posters and critical pull-quotes suggest. Sure, the Blu-ray’s case is emblazoned with descriptions such as ‘sharp and funny’, ‘very funny’ and ‘a blistering black comedy’, but Young Adult refuses to be enjoyed as simple, humorous entertainment. 

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At the risk of alienating the audience, Mavis is a rather unlikable character, with an overinflated ego, a smugness about her big-city success, and a self-satisfaction when returning to her small-town roots. Of course, these all form a smokescreen for her real problems, but there are few actresses who could pull off such a wounded, defensive, despicable character.

Luckily, Theron has both the subtlety of suggestion and the commitment to make such a character work, plumbing the depths of Mavis’ twisted self-esteem with a complete lack of film-star vanity. It’s easy to see why the film’s sole nod during the awards season, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture: Comedy or Musical, was reserved for her, even if it’s as inaccurate to call Young Adult a comedy, or Theron’s performance comedic, than it is to label it a musical.

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The character, like the film, is a little hard to handle, and certainly hard to like. But Young Adult portrays the bitter ugliness of depression with real conviction and, on reflection, a compelling sense of detail. As with Juno, music plays a great role in the characters’ inner lives, as focal points for their personalities, but here music is used as an evocative motif – both as a symbol of fading youth, and of the emotional investment of nostalgia. 

At the head of the film, as Mavis hits the open road on her journey to the sticks, she shoves an old mix-tape into the car stereo. In what could be a moment of alt-rock name-checking, The Concept by Scottish power pop group Teenage Fanclub plays over the opening credits – but as a montage of rolling tape and cassette players starts to whirl by, the song suddenly stops, and rewinds back to the beginning. And repeat. And rewind. Over and over. Mavis is singing along, but she never lets the song end. Instead, she sings a never-ending loop of verse-chorus-verse, as if the song itself was her youth, and she could perpetually relive it, even though all around her are propelling towards middle age.

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Where Young Adult succeeds is in its examination of the fade-out at the end of this song of youth. Some characters move on. Buddy, who, it turns out, made the mix tape, even forgot it was once ‘their song’. Mavis, though, is held in place – and not necessarily by choice. 

Outside of a few glimpses of self-awareness, a heartbreaking public outburst, and a potential fling with a local geek (Patton Oswalt), Mavis’ fate stays ambiguous. Perhaps this is what damned the film to a mere $22 million box office worldwide, the lowest since the director’s debut. It’s certainly not a quirky, transformative comedy, ‘blistering’ or otherwise, no matter what the pull-quotes say. Instead, you’re treated to a film that is as discomfiting and unwilling to provide easy answers, as it is well-drawn and subtly moving.

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Young Adult is easy to overlook, but once watched, it’s hard to forget.